A Tale of Two Choices

Nashville's private schools carry the load in relocation arguments while the public system sorts itself out [From the November/December issue of Nashville Post magazine]

When business leaders discuss Nashville’s “city profile” with out-of-town executives exploring possible relocation to Middle Tennessee, two stories are told to cover the city’s education options.

First, there’s the story of Metro Nashville Public Schools, the city’s public school system, an organization that not long ago seemed destined for either a state or mayoral takeover following consecutive years of not reaching federal No Child Left Behind benchmarks. The business community has rallied around the leadership of Director of Schools Jesse Register since his arrival nearly two years ago, but the stigma of a struggling, even failing, school district remains.

Then there’s the story of the city’s wealth of private schools, a foundation built on institutions like Montgomery Bell Academy, Harpeth Hall School, University School of Nashville and Battle Ground Academy, to name just a few. In recent years, while Nashville’s public school system has experienced ups and downs, the area’s private schools – totaling around 40 at the present count – have emerged as an effective bargaining chip in local corporate recruitment.

Private Appeal

Mark Sweeney, senior principal at South Carolina-based McCallum Sweeney Consulting, says that in any economic recruitment setting, generally speaking, there are two motivations for companies to spend considerable time and interest investigating the quality of local private schools. The first is a perceived weakness in the local school system. (Check.) The second is the general preference of executives for their children to attend private school.

According to Sweeney, whose firm worked to relocate carmaker Nissan’s corporate headquarters to Williamson County in 2005, companies consider a variety of quality of life issues when relocating – including housing, security and medical care. But local education remains paramount.

“While considering Nashville metro for the Nissan headquarters,” Sweeney told sister publication BusinessTN, “information on all schools, public and private, was provided to the company. I know there was strong interest among some executives in the private schools.”

Potentially relocating executives who are parents often visit potential schools in person, as well.

“Final decisions on education assessment are usually best with a combination of secondary research (published data) and primary research (on-the-ground visits),” Sweeney adds.

As regards private schools, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce Chief Economic Development and Marketing Officer Janet Miller says Nashville’s strength is its breadth of choice. The portfolio includes parochial institutions like Father Ryan High School, single-gender academies like Harpeth Hall and MBA, suburban schools outside Davidson County such as BGA and Brentwood Academy, and several Montessori schools.

“I would say we stack up very well when it comes to a broad and deep kind of range of offerings for people,” Miller says. “The diversity of choice here is really impressive. There really is a school that will fit virtually any relocating family. They just have to get in here and do the homework.”

William Moseley, headmaster of The Ensworth School, agrees.

“Good independent schools with strong programs in academics, the arts, service learning and athletics increase the breadth of choices, and Nashville is attracting an increasingly diverse group of businesses and industries to the area,” Moseley says.

That recruitment process can become a two-way street. Many local private schools work in concert with area chambers of commerce, top real estate companies, and college and university directors to ensure business leaders learn about their school.

Public Truths

When it comes to economic development in Nashville, it’s not that local business leaders ignore Nashville’s public school component; they just frame it in a certain way. Words like “momentum” and a “district on the rise” are used to describe the current state of Nashville’s 139 public schools.

“The first thing we do is lay out a fact-based case,” Miller says. “The thing that is really inspiring about the Metro public school story right now is the alignment of all of the players – from the mayor’s office, to the [Metro] Council, to business leadership, to parents – to improve the system. That’s a really compelling story and a really compelling case to put in front of corporations.

“Many cities may just try to sweep it under the rug, ignore it and not talk about it,” Miller continues. “We always acknowledge this is the number one priority for the city, and this is the number one thing that we’ve got to get right. That helps us in positioning the public school system.”

Whether the tide will turn for local public schools remains to be seen, but in the meantime, having a diverse catalogue of private institutions boosts Nashville’s pitch in the high-stakes game of wooing corporate execs.